Explorer 1: How America’s First Satellite Helped Create NASA

0…and liftoff! The final liftoff of Atlantis [ cheers ] The NASA you know today? It was actually founded after the launch of the first scientific mission in space. After the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite ever to orbit the Earth, the United States was under enormous pressure to pick up the pace of its own satellite program. Built by a team of more than 100 engineers, electronics experts and machinists working around the clock, Explorer 1 became the first American satellite to orbit the Earth just four months later. In reality, Explorer 1 was actually the U.S.’s second attempt to launch a satellite into space after Sputnik first took flight. Working in tandem, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency had a rocket nearly ready to launch. But the Navy’s Vanguard Project was given the first opportunity to send their rocket into space. Vanguard made it about two feet off the ground before exploding on the launch pad. The Eisenhower Administration, eager to ease the anxieties of a nation deep into the Cold War, gave JPL and the Army just ninety days to finish and launch Explorer 1. Think for a minute, what a different world it would be if Explorer 1 never happened. Say Vanguard successfully launched in December, the Explorer 1 may have been turned off. There may have been less pressure to create a separate space agency so we might not have NASA. There’s a lot of chance involved in all this. Minutes click past relentlessly. The beams of powerful search lights light up the missile truly the star of one of the star of one of the greatest suspense dramas of our time. After Explorer 1 launched on January 31st, 1958, the Space Race officially began. Explorer 1 played a huge symbolic role in galvanizing America’s legacy in space. But its true scientific mission was a milestone unto itself. The instruments on board made the first major scientific find of the Space Age: a belt of radiation around the planet linked to the very survival of life on Earth. With Explorer 1, science moved into space, and we can finally address questions scientifically we’ve asked for millennia. The launch of Explorer 1 sixty years ago opened the flood gates for future scientific missions, positioning the US to be a leader in space exploration. There are 18 missions observing Earth right now, while another 36 are currently exploring our solar system and beyond. To date, the United States has successfully sent a crewed mission to the moon, dispatched a spacecraft to each planetary body in our solar system, and reached interstellar space. Just this year alone, there are 8 missions launching all made possible by the collaborative efforts of NASA, its partner agencies like NOAA, and other space agencies around the world. Even though this started as a nation activity, we’ve brought the world along, and it’s an international activity in which humanity together transcends the boundaries and really opens up views of the world in a way we could have never imagined. Less than a life time ago, humankind barely left the limits of our own atmosphere. Who then could have imagined that only sixty years later we would be touching the atmosphere of the sun, arriving at the most distant object humans have ever explored, and launching the world’s most powerful telescope to get a glimpse of the first galaxies born after the Big Bang. Humanity’s exploration of the universe will continue to expand, from our home planet to the far reaches of interstellar space. But wherever NASA goes, one thing is certain: it won’t be boring.

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